In Osprey folklore there are stories of doomed birds who, unable to release their talons from extremely large fish, are dragged beneath the surface of the water. I don’t know if any such occurrence has been reliably documented but on Sunday afternoon there was a remarkable incident in Manton Bay in which 5R came into contact with a very large fish. Now, I do know that like fishermen, we Osprey watchers always tend to exaggerate the size of fish, but this one was truly enormous and certainly too big for 5R to lift.
He had started the day well. By 8:30a.m. 5R had already provided his family with three small or average sized fish. Also, he had easily chased off two intruding Ospreys, one of whom was intent on landing on the nest. Then, soon afterwards, he disappeared and, worryingly, was away for nearly five hours. On his return his mate cannot have been impressed with the tiny fish he offered her: she polished it off in a couple of minutes and then began to nag him for more.
The female’s food-begging spurred 5R into action and, within a couple of minutes of leaving the nest, we saw him diving into the water close to the new rocky bund that divides the main reservoir from Heron Bay. Quite often we see Ospreys rest briefly on the water after diving, as they secure their prey and alter their grip before powering themselves back into the air with long, fast, almost horizontal wing strokes. But this time it was clear to all the watchers in Wader Scrape Hide that 5R was having trouble. For at least two minutes he was on the surface of the water beating his wings and splashing as he struggled to control and retrieve his prey.
Then through one of the telescopes I saw something I’ve never seen or heard described before: the Osprey appeared to be rowing! He was using his wings like oars and gradually moving through the water towards the rocks of the bund. Ospreys are not equipped for swimming: unlike waterfowl they don’t have webbed feet to propel themselves through the water. However, this Osprey was really swimming but using its wings in an effective type of breast stoke.
As 5R reached the rocks we saw the great silvery fish for the first time as the Osprey began the business of landing his enormous catch. It was all he could do to drag it, little by little, out of the water. Was it one of Rutland Water’s king-sized Trout? Someone said it was a Tuna! Once it was laid out on the rock we could see that it was clearly a flat fish, suggesting that it could be a Bream. Again and again 5R tried to fly off with it, but the sheer mass of fish flesh was too much for him. There was only one thing to do––make it smaller–– so he began to eat, starting as usual with the head.
Much speculation in the hide now: if the Osprey gets heavier himself surely he will still be unable to get air-borne? Why doesn’t the female fly over and perhaps they could pick it up together? (long-term followers of this website may remember a photo-caption competition, Cooperative Foraging”, from 2004, www.zen88810.zen.co.uk/ROspreys%20site/About%20Captions.htm) Two crows and some gulls were clearly also speculating on the future of the fish as they edged carefully closer.
5R continued to eat his way through the Bream for over an hour, every few minutes trying again to take off with it until eventually, with a super-human or super-avian effort, he managed to get airborne and fly low over the water towards the nest like an overloaded cargo plane. This video enables you to see his mate’s reaction as he arrived at the nest, as well as that of some hopeful gulls. Remember, this shows just the tail end of the fish!
Even though we’ve been watching Ospreys here for 15 years we keep seeing them in new ways and learn more about their behaviour. I certainly never thought I would see an Osprey seeming to row its way across the water. (Many thanks to all the visitors in the hide this afternoon who helped with the watching, recording and interpreting some remarkable Osprey action. Wasn’t it fun!)